By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Crab season's yearly price war between fishermen and buyers has begun already, but this season there is a new twist that may delay pay-offs to crabbers and their families until late December.

Washington and Oregon have delayed their opening days until Dec. 10. That worries Crescent City fishermen who wonder whether northern boats will come to California waters for an earlier Dec. 1 opening.

andquot;There's a lot of controversy that seems to go on every year except there's usually something a little different,andquot; said Karl Evanow, one leader of the Del Norte County Fishermens' Association.

The late opening for northern states is intended to give the Quinalt tribe of Washington a true fighting chance to collect their allocation of mature crab before the large non-tribal fleets can drop their pots.

andquot;A judge recognized the treaty's right to 50 percent of the shellfish take, so we've been researching ways to give them a meaningful opportunity at that,andquot; said Washington Fish and Wildlife official Heather Reed.

She said the Quinault tribe has about 11 boats, compared with a fleet of hundreds of boats owned by non-tribal fishermen.

Before this year, the tribe was given its headstart in late October. But most of the crab in cold northern waters that early is too soft and too immature, according to Reed.

So the solution was to let the tribe fish later and to delay the rest of the season for the northern half of the state above Westport.

The rest of Washington followed suit to prevent northern fishermen from heading into their territory, and crowding opening day.

As of yesterday, most of Oregon did the same, delaying their season until Dec. 10 to prevent Washington boats from crowding their opening day.

That leaves all harbors south of Port Orford: Gold Beach, Brookings, Crescent City and Eureka still holding to the Dec. 1 opener - at least, so far.

If the rest of Oregon changes its season opener through the authority of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Crescent City fisherman Jon Brunsing said Brookings Harbor boats will most definitely come this way if the local season starts first.

andquot;If Brookings wants to come down here, we may just have to ask for a higher price to make up for the crabs we lose to them,andquot; Brunsing said.

Changing Northern California's opening day may be impossible at short notice, because according to Brunsing, it takes an act of the state Legislature to do so.

In Oregon and Washington, their Fish and Wildlife departments have the authority to change the season date.

So, holding out for the higher price may be Crescent City's only card to play, because no one can fish until all agree, in essence delaying everyone's opening until California can fish.

State law in all three of the western coastal states dictates that every port from north of San Francisco to the Canadian border must come to an agreement on a price per pound to sell for before they start fishing.

The ports had their first in a series of conference calls Wednesday to begin the process.

Though Evanow said he did not make it to the conference call, he has reason to believe that Pacific Choice, the West Coast's largest fish buyer, will hold out.

andquot;Where it plays in for us is that the major buyer Pacific Choice has said they don't want to buy until the whole coast is open,andquot; Evanow said.

Historically, fishermen don't begin the season on what is technically the opening day, because the ports don't settle on a price until about a week after Dec.1.

But once a price is agreed upon, all of the boats, packed with baited crabpots 10 high, make a mad rush at once to harvest as many crab as they can as fast as they can before the other guy gets them.

In that pursuit, crab fishermen run round-the-clock operations, doing backbreaking work with only a couple of hours of sleep per night.

Adding to the fatigue will be winter seas from 15 to 30 feet high.

But for most Del Norte County fishermen and their crew, crab season will bring in enough money to last the year.